Ecklund Complex fires put out with technology


Helicopter supply drops, thermal sensors, rappelling from helicopters, complex mathematical prediction models and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) mapping technology. Part of the next James Bond movie?

Not quite. They are new techniques and modern technology being used or readied for use to deal with wildland fires such as the Ecklund Complex fire, the two lightning-ignited fires that are burning near the border of Dinosaur National Monument and Browns Park Wildlife Refuge.

The Ecklund Complex, consisting of fires in the Ecklund area and Davis Draw, is managed as a Fire Use area, which means the blazes are being allowed to burn naturally, eating away fuels that could cause future fires to burn out of control and operating as a catalyst for parts of the ecosystem. The fires are allowed to burn naturally only in prescribed areas. Firefighters monitor the fires and use suppression efforts to direct or mitigate the flames as they approach valued structures or areas.

And, they are employing some new techniques and technology to do it.

"Right now, we have no real need for heli-rappelling, but we have people who are certainly capable should the need arise," said Dave Root, fire information officer for the Ecklund Complex fire.

Helitack Crew 525, part of the monitoring force of firefighters in the Complex, recently practiced heli-rappelling maneuvers, as is required every 14 days, but has not used the technique in connection with these fires. The Helitack crew has flown supplies to remote fire camps, mapped the fires with a GPS receiver that is integrated into the helicopter, and is now equipped with a thermal sensor to gather temperature data that is incorporated with other on-site data into computer models that help predict fire behavior.

"We have fire behavior analysts, who are a pretty technical group who use lots and lots of data to forecast how the fire will move as part of our management of the fire as Fire Use," Root said. "We are also using long-term fire behavior analysts who project the benefits for the effected ecosystems months down the road, the good the ecosystem will gain by the fire blazing or smoldering through an area.

"Certainly we need to know how the fire will act in the next three days, but we also need to have an idea what the long-term benefits of the fire will be, to manage how we use our people, engines and other resources."

The thermal sensor locates "hot spots," which are burned areas where wind or weather changes could reignite flames. Information like this is added to the fire behavior model so firefighters will have a better idea of how the fire will act under certain conditions, and enable them to better prepare and direct the course of a fire away from an area that is not mandated to burn.

The fires are mostly smoldering through the Ecklund area and Davis Draw, doing "just what we want it to do," which is burning fuel that if left to build up for several years, could feed a large-scale wildfire, Root said.

Weather and wind changes could cause the fire to die out, or they could cause it to grow into an actual wildfire if the flames creep into sagebrush. All of these possible conditions and contingencies are being put into the fire behavior equations being computed for the Ecklund Complex.

The fires had burned 3,244 acres as of Wednesday, and "haven't grown much since then, smoldering through maybe 20 to 30 acres," Root said.

The Ecklund Complex is a Maximum Management Area (MMA), which means it is a Fire Use Management area. Until recently, that designation had been complicated by the patchwork nature of the land. The mixture of public and private lands made the management process laborious, forcing firefighters to do more work because the fire could not be allowed to burn private land without permission.

But, affected landowners recently gathered in Vernal, Utah, to discuss how they wanted their lands managed, and the situation is now much more beneficial to the firefighters, and the environment, Root said.

"The landowners were very cooperative, very helpful. They all agreed that the lands should be allowed to burn naturally, except near structures," said Dr. Ron Hodgson of the Bureau of Land Management. "We are really pleased that we can manage the fire as Fire Use on both public and private lands. It makes the operation much more reasonable.

"We're going to try and protect all that we can, which is nearly every structure or improvement in the area. There are maybe one or two we won't be able to save."

Structures that might be lost are older structures that are of little or no value and are of no concern.

The cooperation between landowners and the federal management agencies bodes well for the Moffat County Fire Plan that is presently being organized, he said.

The number of firefighters in the Ecklund Complex is going to drop by 10 from approximately 90 because a 20-member Hot Shot team has reached its 14 day limit, and is being rotated out.

A 10-member Fire Use Module is transitioning in to replace the Hot Shot team.

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